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The life of Cabeza de Vaca: a brief biography

Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born in Jerez de la Frontera, most probably in 1500. His paternal grandfather, Pedro de Vera Mendoza had been a loyal supporter of Henry IV and was sent to conquer Grand Canary by the Catholic Monarchs. Cabeza de Vaca followed in this adventurous tradition, first serving as a page or drummer boy in Italy in about 1512 and then supporting Charles V in during the Comuneros uprising.

Perhaps as early as 1514 he found a position in the household of Alonso de Guzmán, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, one of the most powerful aristocrats in Spain. However, the ducal household was obsessed by Guzmán’s impotence, lack of interest in female company, and consequent inability to produce an heir.

One morning, whilst tying his master’s shoe laces, Cabeza de Vaca noticed that the Duke’s ‘nature was somewhat erect,’ causing widespread laughter amongst those present, according to witness statements made during the religious annulment of the Duke’s marriage. No one, it seems, had ever seen the Duke even slightly aroused before. In fact, from time to time, Cabeza de Vaca and his cronies secretly hurried women into to the ducal bedchamber to arouse his interest if not his passion, but despite each of these women ‘kissing him and taking his member in her hand’ they all left saying he was ‘no more than a woman like themselves (see Juan Maura’s introduction to the Cátedra edition of the Naufragios).

One such visit is described in detail. Cabeza de Vaca sent a ‘clean and sweet smelling’ woman into the Duke’s bedchamber ‘in order to see if he could be aroused.’ The servants stood listening at the door while she ‘spoke to him lovingly,’ but he cried out to be left alone and she left complaining that ‘he’s worthless.’

This unexpectedly bawdy story, told in minute detail as supporting evidence for the annulment of the Duke’s marriage, exemplifies perhaps the most singular characteristic of Cabeza de Vaca’s most singular life, for rarely has one man been in the wrong place at the right time so often and so willingly. In fact, it is typical of his adventures, for seldom has a man of such little consequence to history had such intriguing and revealing experiences and then had those experiences discussed and recorded for posterity so diligently by others. Moreover, it is rare that a man of such little consequence has been so enthusiastic about finding an opportunity to tell his own story.

Interest in Cabeza de Vaca’s two key experiences in the New World is largely a consequence of the accounts he published during his lifetime. His sensational first-person narrative of the trans-American crossing was first published in 1542 and republished in 1555 along with Pero Hernández’s description of events at Río de la Plata that was closely controlled by Cabeza de Vaca himself.

However, there is a strong tendency to forget that Cabeza de Vaca has been prominent in the history of America primarily because he was a writer and that historically his actions were of limited significance. This has largely been due to the sensational aspects of his account of crossing America, the extraordinary nature of the crossing itself, and the fact that story is perhaps almost too good to be true. With himself very prominent as both narrator and protagonist, he tells how he, two other Spanish noblemen Andrés Dorantes and Alonso del Castillo, with a black African who had been christened Estebán were the only survivors of a disastrous expedition of 300 men who had hoped to settle in Florida. Their comrades drowned, were killed in attacks by native Americans or died from disease and starvation, and some even ate one another out of desperation. But the four survivors were taken prisoner by primitive coastal tribes and forced to work as slaves for five years. Then they escaped inland, where their skills as shamans and medicine men led them to be revered as Children of the Sun. Slowly, they walked west, preaching Christianity, accompanied by thousands of native American disciples. Eventually, near the Gulf of California they met a group of Spanish slave raiders and were able to find their way to colonial Mexico from where Cabeza de Vaca eventually returned to Spain.

It is a remarkable story that has been retold in children’s books, novels, films, on stage and in history books. Cabeza de Vaca’s account has often been translated into English and many other languages and is frequently republished in Spanish. It has fascinated historians and academics, who have studied it in thousands of books and articles. It is easy to see why. The story itself is exciting and told in a vivid autobiographical style with creative embellishments, thoroughly describing and exaggerating the misery of their initial misfortunes before turning to their spectacularly miraculous progress through unknown lands.

The precise route has interested traditional historians and stirred up local chauvinism, especially in Florida, Texas, and Colorado, because it was the first crossing by Europeans of the what is today the United States. Moreover, that that first ‘European’ east to west crossing should have traversed the South with a black African slave playing a pivotal role appeals to the liberal academic establishment, as does the enslavement of Europeans by native Americans. But if the peaceful process of cultural exchange described by Cabeza de Vaca also seems politically liberal, there is an inherent irony in the impression that the story turns the tables on the ‘Black Legend’ of Spanish colonialism, for the peaceful Christian evangelisation of pagan tribes resonates strongly with religious conservatives. Even so, Cabeza de Vaca has often been lauded for his objection to the enslavement of native Americans.

These social and political ramifications perhaps go some way to explain one of the most curious aspects of the way in which Cabeza de Vaca’s account has been read and interpreted. Despite his claims to have raised men from the dead, surgically removed an arrowhead from near a man’s heart, to have himself been saved from a freezing night by a miraculously self-combusting bush and the parallels he draws between his experience and Christ’s Passion, the account has mostly been treated as essentially true, and scepticism usually directed at the least plausible episodes and rarely at the account as a whole.

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Dr. Goodwin’s recent research has shown that the published story was not written by Cabeza de Vaca alone, but first in conjunction with his Spanish companions. Later it was reworked when he was interrogated in Spain, then a final draft was produced for printing. The long passages describing native American tribal groups and their customs for which he has often been praised as a proto-ethnologist or anthropologist were probably extracted from him under cross-examination by Spanish officials and perhaps even the Emperor Charles V himself. Did he tell the truth? Was he perhaps given to telling people what they wanted to hear? Did he really have such a good relationship with the inland native American tribes, or did he just say so because the royal policy of friendship and good treatment of ‘Indians’ had been reinforced in 1529? What is more, the more sensational miracle episodes were probably added as the book was prepared for printing in 1542, two years after Cabeza de Vaca had left Spain for Río de la Plata and at a time when Andrés Dorantes was possibly in Spain.

An enormous amount has been written about Cabeza de Vaca’s north American odyssey. By contrast, very little has been written in English about his governorship of the Río de la Plata. Of particular interest is the way in which these two periods of his life are linked by his predilection for telling stories about himself. The most obvious connection is the simultaneous publication of both accounts in 1555, but without the compelling story about walking across America, he would no doubt not have secured his appointment as governor of Río de la Plata.

Cabeza de Vaca arrived at the Spanish court in 1537, where he was interviewed by royal officials and the Emperor offered him the chance to expand on an initial report of his adventure that had been sent by the Viceroy of Mexico the previous year. He arrived at court hoping to secure the governorship of Florida (which then included most of Texas) on the strength of his account, but found that Hernando de Soto had already received that appointment. Instead, in 1540, he was offered Río de la Plata and sent to rescue the beleaguered Spanish fort at Buenos Aires.

Having crossed the Atlantic in a leaking flagship, he struck inland towards the Spanish settlement at Asunción, on the river Paraná at the Paraguay tributary. On arrival, Cabeza de Vaca assumed the governorship, during which, he later claimed, he had operated a policy of peaceful alliances with local tribal groups. But he clearly alienated the Spaniards who were already there, by his account a band of incompetent ruffians who had deliberately abandoned the previous governor during an exploratory expedition upstream.

In time, Cabeza de Vaca set out himself upstream in search of the land of the White King, rumoured to be rich in silver, which was probably Potosí. Having travelled as far as his boats could go, he returned to Asunsión, where he was suddenly arrested in the dead of night by a group of the original settlers, who accused him of abusing his governorship and other crimes. He was sent back to Spain in chains. Although he was tried and condemned to fight at his own expense helping the Spanish campaign in north Africa, he seems to have been incarcerated at the royal court instead.

He was eventually released from prison, but died penniless, probably in Valladolid, possibly in Seville, in about 1564.

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